The Mantell Incident

The Mantell Incident is one of the most publicized UFO reports on record. Captain Thomas F. Mantell died on the 7th January 1948 when his plane crashed after pursuing a reported UFO.

The 25-year-old Air National Guard pilot is thought to have been starved of oxygen after chasing the UFO to a high altitude, without oxygen he was unable to maintain control of his aircraft that subsequently plummeted into the ground.

Fort Knox airfield received a report from the Kentucky State Highway Patrol of an unusual aerial object near Maysville, Kentucky. Reports of a circular object, 250 to 300 feet in diameter, were made from Owensboro, Kentucky, and Irvington, Kentucky.

At about 1:45 p.m., from his post in the fort Knox airfield control tower, Sgt Quinton Blackwell saw an object in the distance. Two other witnesses in the tower also reported a white object in the distance. Base commander Colonel Guy Hix reported an object he described as “very white,” and “about one fourth the size of the full moon ... Through binoculars it appeared to have a red border at the bottom ... It remained stationary, seemingly, for one and a half hours.”

F-51 Mustang

Four airborne Air National Guard F-51 Mustangs were ordered to intercept the object. Sgt Blackwell was in radio communication with all four pilots throughout the encounter.

One pilot’s Mustang was low on fuel, and he quickly returned to base. Mantell described a “metallic object or possibly reflection of sun from a metallic object, and it is of tremendous size” above him, and reported its speed at about 180 miles per hour. Air Force Major Edward J. Ruppelt (the first head of Project Blue Book) notes that there was some disagreement amongst the air traffic controllers as to the pilots exact words.

Though it has become all but enshrined in retellings of the Mantell Incident, not all of the witnesses in the air control tower agreed he had indeed described a massive metallic object.

Ruppelt writes, “By the time the F-51’s had climbed to 10,000 feet, the two wing men later reported, Mantell had pulled out ahead of them and they could just barely see him. At two forty-five, Mantell called the tower and said, ‘I see something above and ahead of me and I’m still climbing.’ All the people in the tower heard Mantell say this and they heard one of the wing men call back and ask, ‘What the hell are we looking for?’ The tower immediately called Mantell and asked him for a description of what he saw. Odd as it may seem, no one can remember exactly what he answered. Saucer historians have credited him with saying, ‘I’ve sighted the thing. It looks metallic and it’s tremendous in size.... Now it’s starting to climb.’ Then in a few seconds he is supposed to have called and said, ‘It’s above me and I’m gaining on it. I’m going to 20,000 feet.’ Everyone in the tower agreed on this one last bit of the transmission, ‘I’m going to 20,000 feet,’ but didn’t agree on the first part, about the UFO’s being metallic and tremendous in size.”

The three pilots continued in steep pursuit of the object. Two of the pilots later reported they saw an object, but described it as so small and indistinct they could not identify it. Mantell ignored suggestions that the pilots should level their altitude and try to more clearly see the object.

Only pilot Lt. Albert Clemmons, had an oxygen mask, and his oxygen was in low supply. Clemmons and a Lt. Hammond called off their pursuit at 22,500 feet. Mantell continued, however. It was presumed that he lost consciousness due to lack of oxygen at the high attitude. A witness later reported Mantell’s Mustang in a circling descent. His plane crashed at a farm, and Mantel died upon impact.

On pulling his body from the wreckage, firemen noted that there were no visible cuts or bruises on the body. Instead, all of the bones in his body had been shattered. His wristwatch had stopped at 3:18 p.m., the time of the crash. By 3.50 p.m. the UFO was no longer visible from the control tower. The Mantell Incident was widely reported in the media and received significant attention.

The death of an experienced plot, caused a shift in both the public and governmental perception of UFOs. Up until then the media had treated UFO encounters in a glib and light hearted manor.

Historian David Michael Jacobs notes “the fact that a person had dramatically died in an encounter with an alleged flying saucer dramatically increased public concern about the phenomenon. Now a dramatic new prospect entered thought about UFO’s: they might be not only extraterrestrial but potentially hostile as well.”

The US Air Force’s first study of UFOs, Project Sign, reported that Mantell had misidentified the planet Venus, and had passed out at high altitude. This report was later changed, and the cause of the crash remains officially listed as undetermined.

Others suggest that while Mantell was an experienced pilot, he was new to the F-51 Mustang, and that this relative inexperience could have been a factor in the crash.

Unconfirmed rumors have circulated stating that Air Force officials suspected Mantell’s Mustang had been fired on or otherwise damaged by an extraterrestrial spacecraft, and that officials suppressed these reports.

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